Why Indochina?

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Why Indochina?

 an explanation is in order


Don’t worry, this isn’t a treatise on the historical and political reasons for the Indochina War of 1945 to 1954 between the French and the Viet Minh.  Rather I’d just like to share with you why I am attracted to the period for wargaming.


The first reason is simple.  I started wargaming with a friend at about 13 and he introduced me to the wargames club in my hometown.  On my first visit there I played a game based on the war in Indochina , a conflict about which I knew nothing.  A column of Airfix soft plastic GMC trucks, escorted by Rocco Minitanks Greyhound armoured cars was winding its way through a pass in the jungle when it was ambushed by Viet Minh.  Converted Airfix US Marines and Japanese provided the figures, I have no idea what rules were used and I can’t even recollect who won, but by the end of the afternoon I was hooked to wargaming.  As a result, after 30 years of expenditure of great treasure and copious quantities of blood, sweat and tears in pursuit of this “hobby”, I find myself back where I started.  Like Jeff says, I fondly remember a previous childhood.


The second reason is the books, specifically Bernard Fall’s books.  Fall was a Frenchman who became an American citizen and was an unusual combination of academic, man of action, reporter and writer.  Based on his knowledge and experiences of the First Indochina War he was one of the few people who could talk sensibly about the Second Indochina War.  In some respects he was a cult figure amongst those who were trying to understand what was really going on in Vietnam in the ‘60s.  A status ironically enhanced by his death in February 1967 on a Viet Cong booby trap in his old stomping ground, Highway One: “The Street Without Joy.” His last words were: “…it smells bad-meaning it’s a little bit suspicious…Could be an amb…”


Fall’s book, “Street Without Joy” was the result of his is visit to Indochina in 1953 to prepare his Ph.D. dissertation.  It is a combination of history, political analysis and reportage that was about 15 years ahead of the “Gonzo Journalism” of the ‘60s and ‘70s and is still, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of military history ever written.  If you want a “flavour” of the war this is where you start.


“Hell In A Very Small Place”, Fall’s account of Dien Bien Phu is now a little bit dated, because of information that has come to light since it was written, but nevertheless is a classic piece of analysis and writing. It has the amazing ability to keep the reader in doubt about an outcome which is already known.  I have read it about 20 times and often when re-reading it I wonder if the French will win!


Fall’s books were devoured when I was a teenager and the obsession began.  I have re-read them again and again along with anything else I can find about the period, and as my reading has widened the obsession has deepened.  I’ve gone through many of the English language sources and if I can bring my schoolboy French up to scratch there are enough books in that language to keep me busy for another couple of decades or so too!


The nature of the war itself is also part of the “attraction”.  Although Ho Chi Minh categorised the war against the French as that of the tiger against the elephant, that phrase was a piece of good propaganda, and perhaps more appropriate to the Second Indochina War.  Compared to, say, Korea or Vietnam at the time of the US involvement, the First Indochina War was fought by the French on a shoestring.  US aid after the beginning of the Korean War was, to a large part, cancelled out by Chinese aid to the Viet Minh after the founding of the People’s Republic.  From 1950 onwards the Viet Minh main force units were just as professional, and frequently better equipped than their French opponents.  The French retained sole possession of armour and airpower, and, until they discovered too late at Dien Bien Phu , superiority in artillery, but in other respects the sides were often equal in ability, with the Viet Minh having the edge in strategic direction and commitment. Both sides undertook dramatic offensives and hard fought defensives.  Terrain varied from marshy delta to sand dune, to paddy, to rolling uplands to jungle covered highlands.  The scope for games is almost unlimited and, wherever and whenever a game is set, it cannot help being “exotic.”


Another exotic element is the nature of the armies involved.  Viet Minh units would vary in ability and equipment from village based self-defence militia, through regional troops to the main force units.  Add in sappers and death volunteers, flag wielding Commissars, “Trinh Sat” reconnaissance units, the occasional Japanese left over from the Second World War and you need never paint two wargames units alike.  The French are even more colourful for “French” is just a useful catchall term for the North African, Senegalese, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, Foreign Legion (who, contrary to popular belief were not all ex-Nazis,) French regular army and colonial troops that made up the forces engaged.  If this is not diverse enough for you then what about parachuting dogs, naval commandos and riverine forces, religious militia composed of Catholics in the North and even more exotic sects in the South, Montagnard groups, militarised gangsters in Saigon, counter guerrilla deep penetration groups and commandos of turned Viet Minh?


One other factor that makes the French army in Indochina interesting to model and wargame with is their blithe disregard for uniform higher level military organisations that are a matter of faith for most armies.  For instance, Pirey recounts an operation during the battle of Seven Pagodas in May 1951 where the order of battle consisted of his company of Colonial Paratroops, reinforced by a platoon each of Foreign Legionnaires, Vietnamese Paratroops (from his own battalion as by this time each “white” unit had been “yellowed” by having Vietnamese integrated at company and at platoon level), and Senegalese.  Can you imagine doing a WWII game and saying, “well you have a company of British paras supported by a platoon each of the Black Watch, US 101st Airborne and The King’s African Rifles”?  Even the most relaxed WWII gamer would find it difficult to swallow this, but in Indochina it would be par for the course.


Figures are not a problem if you don’t mind a bit of converting, which I rather enjoy anyway.  You can have hours of fun loping bush hats of WWII Australian figures and sticking them on US Marines. Many WWII and Vietnam figures can be used straight off. I have found lots of good stuff in the Britannia Miniatures and SHQ ranges especially.  To my surprise I discovered that both Liberation Miniatures and Platoon 20 make figures specially for the period, which leads me to believe that I’m not the only Indochina nut out there.  The Platoon 20 are very nice, workmanlike figures, but my personal favourites are the Lib Min figures which combine nice detail, animation and a real feel for the period.  I also like to use Raventhorpe Miniatures as with a choice of heads you can have just the chap you want in his “Kepi Blanc”, “Beret Rouge” or “Cowboy Hat”.  Raventhorpe also produce a lot of figures in shorts or bare buff which are really useful as neither the French nor the Viets were long on dress regulations.


Most vehicles, AFVs and aircraft are easily available and even the most esoteric ones can be found with a bit of digging.  The digging is worth it as this gets us back to the exotic nature of the period.  Where else can you field M8 Howitzer Motor Carriages used as main battle tanks, Weasel amphibians used for direct assault and F8 Bearcat, (or “Beercat” as the French called them) fighters?


Terrain pieces can be found in ready-made Vietnam ranges.  Scratch building is not hard and any good “colonial” website will give you lots of ideas and advice.  However my personal favourite source remains tropical fish tank furniture… although I have to admit that I still don’t know why tropical fish owners need really neat models of Tonkinese “calcaires”, (limestone outcrops) I’m really grateful to them anyway.


Only one thing was missing to make the game I wanted: a decent set of rules.  Then, on a visit to Bruce’s one wet Washington afternoon a few years ago, he produced a set of rules called “Crossfire” by Arty Conliffe, and a company each of WWII Japanese and British in Burma to try them out.  Neither of us had played with them before but by the end of the afternoon I was sold!  Here at last was a set of rules where fire and movement were vital and games were decided not by knowing how many millimetres of armour plate there are on the mantlet of a Tiger tank, but rather by doing, or by avoiding doing, something stupid in the face of the enemy.   I got Jeff into them, Jeff got into a WWII kick and we introduced the rules to the club. The result was electrifying with a whole bunch of people who had never played before off and running with the rules from about move two.  Both the game scale and mechanics were ideal to replicate the war in Indochina the way I felt it should be done.  Time at last to get out the unpainted Lib Min figures, boxes of plastics and unmade kits that had been sitting under my wargames table and get to work…


Well that was over a year ago.  As these things tend to, the more I get into it the more my library and store of unpainted stuff increases.  Never mind, this is all part of the joy of wargaming. With lots of borrowing from others I’ve produced a set of house amendments for Crossfire to give a bit more of the “flavour” of the war in Indochina; four A4 paper boxes have filled up with troops, guns, boats and vehicles; terrain has mounted up, (no pun intended); and, miracle of miracles, we have actually had two games!


In the first game the Viet Minh were launching a night attack on a weakly held post whilst the French area commander had to work out which of his many posts was actually being attacked and which attacks he was being informed of were diversions.  As it happened the Viets overran the post whilst the French went off on the wrong track but they worked out their mistake quick enough to get back and cut off a retiring Viet Minh platoon. In the second game a Viet Minh regional unit was tasked with slowing down a French mechanised column that was driving hard to the relief of its ambushed main body.  The initial Viet ambush went well but the Viet platoons were too strung out to support each other which enabled the French to launch a dismounted counterattack to clear the road and break through to their beleaguered main body with only15 minutes to spare. Both games made the players think.  They were also very close, fast paced, saw the initiative change several times, looked good and felt right… in short: they were fun.  What more can you ask for?


For me it’s a bit like being 13 again…


On Line Sources


If I have whetted you appetite for more information about Indochina or Crossfire you might be interested in the following websites:


Indo 1945-1954




Danny O’Hara’s and Nowfel Leulliot’s site is the best out there about  Indochina in English with a mix of good historical and wargaming articles and even a filmography (Although I beg to differ with the review of Pierre Schoendoerffer’s “ Dien Bien Phu ” which I think is brilliant: albeit almost incomprehensible to the general public who have not read everything about the battle, but who cares about them!).  Good links will take you to practically everything else out there on the web.   Anything by Messers O’Hara and Leulluiot is good, and both have several other sites that I commend to you, especially their works on the little known Franco-Thai War of 1941. 


Air War over French  Indochina




If you want details on modelling any aircraft used in French Indochina William Alcot’s site is the one for you.


Dien Bien Phu




A rather eclectic site centred on the battle. Check out the  Para ’s Prayer.  Again good links will take you to a lot of useful French sites.






Mike Ruffle’s site is for the “Second Indochina War” but it includes much that is useful for the first conflict.  It has excellent history, technical details, first hand accounts and modelling and wargaming content.  The latter includes Barrie Lovell’s “Incoming” adaptations for Crossfire, (which I have borrowed extensively from in “Contre Les Viets”.) I think this is the best   Vietnam  site out there.  It has just become a members’ site but you get a CD with your subscription so it is well worth it. It is obviously well thought of by the Veterans out there as evidenced by its extensive links


13th Bomb Squadron Association




Actually this is about a USAF B-26 Invader squadron that fought in Korea but the combination of living history, (not without a bit of understated humour,) and technical detail makes it very rewarding for the wargamer and rather compulsive viewing for everyone else.  I daresay French Invader squadrons operated in much the same way.  I largely re-wrote my aircraft rules based on the information here.


The French Foreign Legion




If you would like to hear “Contre Les Viets” sung go to Collin Smith’s site, hit the music menu and kick back… talk about soaking up the atmosphere!  He has lots of other Legion songs and information too.  A fine site and you can almost taste the blood sausage. 


Crossfire Official Site




Just as the name implies this is the place for discussion groups, links, Q and As and all kinds of good stuff.


Lloydian Aspects




Lloyd Nikolas has a truly creative personal site that must have something for everybody, (although the “Children’s Television Quiz” will be lost on anyone unfortunate enough not to have been a kid in   England  in the ‘60s and ‘70s!)The modelling and wargaming bits are especially good and his thoughts on Crossfire are very sound.  In  Hong Kong we use his base marking system which is a lot nicer than having printed unit designations on the toys, and many of his house rules.  In particular you will find his ideas on suppression effects, reactive fire and smoke in “Contre Les Viets.”  And when all the little warriors have been safely returned to their boxes wargamers who appreciate the finer things in life can change mood and check out his tribute to Dame Celia Johnson.


Historical Wargaming in St. John’s




Tim Marshal’s fine personal site with a complete set of Crossfire house rules amongst lots of other good wargaming stuff.  The artillery and aircraft rules in “Contre Les Viets” owe much to Tim.  I haven’t been able to ask his permission because mail keeps bouncing back but his site has the feel of a chap who doesn’t get snitty over this sort of thing.


And Finally: Why the French would have used Crossfire


According to their own post war analysis, a lack of experienced platoon leaders often led the French to break down their “triangular” companies of three platoons of three sections each into four platoons of two sections each. (See: Croizat V.J. “A Translation From The French. Lessons of the War in Indochina Volume II”,  RAND,  California, 1967, pp224-225. This book is, incidentally, 411 pages of everything that you wanted to know about this war and is still available from RAND for only $25).


Now think about this in wargames terms. In Crossfire a unit with good command and control can manoeuvre its sections whether or not they can see their platoon commander.  A unit with average command and control can move its sections if they start in sight of their platoon commander although they can end in a position that is out of sight of him.  A unit with poor command and control can only move sections if they stay in sight of the platoon commander throughout the manoeuvre.  Fire and movement is the basis of infantry combat and this is usually typified in a platoon attack by a fire group pinning the opponent whilst an assault group moves in at right angles to the base of fire to take him out.  Thus, in Crossfire terms, in dense cover, (i.e. most of Indochina,) the good platoon could move all its sections independently and quickly in their fire and assault roles.  The average platoon could set up its base of fire relatively independently of the platoon commander who could then concentrate on moving the assault sections.  But the poor unit must have all its sections moved by the platoon commander who can only realistically handle two sections (one on each side) at any one time.  By the time he had personally set up his base of fire the opponents could well have decamped or have done something unpleasant to him whilst he was trying to get his assault section moving.


Thus, when faced by a deterioration in quality, it makes sense in Crossfire, just as it made sense to the French in reality, to use more, but smaller platoons, which would then have only one role: fire or manoeuvre.  Having two small platoons that could do one thing each quickly was better than having a triangular platoon that would do both things slowly.


Don’t you just love it when you find a set of rules that models real life problems simply and elegantly?


Peter Hunt - January 2002


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